From “The Steel Curtain” to “Orange Crush,” great NFL defenses always have seemed to attract snappy nicknames.
So what do you call this year’s 49ers unit, ranked No. 3 in the league? “The Replacements?” “The No-Name-recognition Defense?” “Tackleholics Anonymous?”
The unit that takes the field Saturday against the San Diego Chargers is almost unrecognizable from the one that lined up against the Seattle Seahawks 11 months ago in the NFC Championship Game. If outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks misses the game with a thumb injury – he’s listed as questionable on the team’s injury report – only three 49ers defenders who started in Seattle will be in the same spot against the Chargers.
The 49ers are down to their third nose tackle, Quinton Dial, and their fifth inside linebacker, Nick Moody. After studying the 49ers’ defense this week, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers admitted he was unfamiliar with the cornerbacks who played in the most recent game against Seattle, a group that includes rookie Dontae Johnson and two off-the-street acquisitions, Leon McFadden and Marcus Cromartie.
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“It makes it a little difficult when you prepare, watching specific guys,” Rivers said. “‘Oh, he likes to cover this, this a certain way, this guy does more of this,’ – there’s not as much of that. There’s not as much inventory there on certain guys. We’ve got to play what we see and play the 11 that are out there.”
There are two silver linings for the 49ers’ season of attrition on defense.
One is that the unit has held opponents to 17 points a game since the bye week. The other is that the team has gotten a jump-start on evaluating players who could be in key roles in coming years.
Asked if the 49ers would turn to younger players now that they’ve been eliminated from the playoffs, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said, “We’re already doing that. That’s happened by necessity.”
Fangio said that on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the team’s dearth of defenders grew even more when it cut ties with starting left defensive end Ray McDonald, who is the subject of a police investigation. The starter on the other side, Justin Smith, has said he’s unsure whether he’ll return for a 15th season next year.
Among the players in the running to fill those gaps is Tony Jerod-Eddie, who likely will start in McDonald’s spot against San Diego. He wasn’t drafted in 2012 and spent that season on the practice squad.
Jerod-Eddie said being passed over in the draft was tough to take. So was the detail-oriented direction from position coach Jim Tomsula, who hounded Jerod-Eddie his rookie season.
“I think I needed it,” Jerod-Eddie said. “It was humbling. But I wouldn’t trade it at all. I don’t think I’d be the player I am now now ... if it went any other way.”
Second-year players Dial and Tank Carradine, who could play at defensive end against the Chargers, also figure into next year’s competition at the position.
Cornerback is another spot that could change in the offseason. Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver, likely starters against San Diego, could become free agents.
Youngsters like Johnson and fellow rookies Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker, both of whom were injured this season, will be in the mix for prominent roles in the offseason.
On offense, wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd are scheduled for free agency and could move on. The two final games will allow the 49ers to evaluate wideouts Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton, the latter of whom is receiving playing time after being inactive the first 12 games of the season.
“In my opinion, games like these are looked at with even more scrutiny than when you’re riding the wave of success going into the playoffs,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “For a player, your film is going to be looked at with a fine-toothed comb by every team, including the 49ers.”
Et cetera – Running back Frank Gore is listed as questionable after suffering a concussion in Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks. His backup, rookie Carlos Hyde, won’t play because of an ankle injury. The only healthy running backs are Alfonso Smith and Phillip Tanner, who was signed Wednesday.
Linebacker Chris Borland (ankle), cornerback Tramaine Brock (hamstring) and wide receiver Stevie Johnson (knee) also are out.
▪ Mike Purcell, an undrafted free agent from Wyoming, was promoted to the active roster, giving the 49ers a second nose tackle behind Dial. The 49ers released defensive end Demarcus Dobbs and placed nose tackle Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey on injured reserve.
▪ Safety Eric Reid was fined $10,000 by the NFL for striking Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin out of bounds in Sunday’s loss.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.